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He's Conquering His Own Everest : Crippled by Polio, Jerry Davila Has Still Become a Top Athlete

September 24, 1986|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Jerry Davila dreamed of climbing a mountain when he was a little boy growing up in Corinto, Nicaragua.

He didn't get to the top of that mountain, but he's climbing another now, and if he isn't at the top, he can see it from where he is.

Davila, 28, a quadriplegic, is confined to a wheelchair.

He contracted polio when he was 9 months old, and 15 years later, in 1973, came to the United States for treatment of his paralysis. He has had surgery 18 times at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles.

Post-polio paralysis afflicts the muscles. It hits some people in the legs only. Davila isn't one of those. All of his extremities are affected, but he has some use of his left hand and foot.

"I can't walk at all," he said. "When I was a little kid, they got me walking in braces. But then I went home and I couldn't afford to buy new braces.

"I know what the feeling is like to walk. I've tried it. When I was younger, I used to say I wish I could walk. I wanted to climb a mountain.

"But I get along and I do OK just the way I am. I've accepted the reality of this. If I go someplace and there are stairs, I go with friends and they help me.

"Sometimes people help me too much, and I don't like that. I don't like to be rude or anything but I try to do as much as I can for myself."

One of the things he does for himself is compete. For, despite his handicap, Davila is an athlete. In fact, he is an elite wheelchair athlete. He will participate in table tennis at the Pan American Wheelchair Games in Puerto Rico in November. He and his partner won the doubles title at the National Wheelchair Games last June in New York and he finished fourth in singles.

"Everything I've wanted to do, I've done it," Davila said. "The feeling of winning is satisfaction.

"When I first started I couldn't serve because I couldn't hold the ball and paddle. I got good at it. When I was in high school I used to miss my lunch to play."

His ultimate goal is to win a gold medal at the World Games for the Disabled.

"It's amazing what he does," said Les Hayes, the athletic director at Widney High in Los Angeles, a school for the physically disabled that Davila attended. "He's an unbelievable athlete in his class. He's one of the best athletes I've coached."

Davila uses his left hand to serve, holding the paddle and ball. He moves slowly around the table, using his one good foot and his bad hand.

He practices at a table tennis center in Chinatown, where he has yet to win a match against any non-handicapped player.

"I love playing against him because I have someone I can beat," Hayes said. "I play him standing up. I couldn't beat him if I were in a wheelchair.

"He started playing 14 years ago. He was very weak at the time. For his disability, he's one of the top players in the nation now."

He also plays basketball for the Rancho Raiders, a team at Rancho Las Amigos Hospital, where he's an outpatient, and competes in track and field. He's ranked first in the state among wheelchair athletes in the discus and club throw.

He also enters five-kilometer races, and he recently attended the National Wheelchair Games at the University of Illinois.

He's at a disadvantage against most other wheelchair racers, however, because he has so little strength in his arms, which push the chair.

Still, Davila's apartment is filled with the medals and trophies he has won since he began competing at Widney. There are 500 students attending the school who are bused in from all over Los Angeles. They range in age from 11 to 22.

Davila trains for as many as five hours a day. He pushes his chair at the USC track or at Widney. "I get some strange looks when I'm pushing," he said. "But it doesn't bother me."

How does he pay the bills if he spends so much time working out?

He has a part-time job as an adult counselor in Pasadena. He graduated from Los Angeles City College and would like to return to school to get a master's degree in psychology.

Davila's lives in a federally funded apartment complex for the disabled in Little Tokyo. There's a two-year waiting list to get in. He has a full-time attendant at home to help him.

He would like to put in a Ping-Pong table, but he said most of the residents are older and it would disturb them.

He drives a new van, provided by a state program for the disabled.

It's expensive to compete. A competition racing wheelchair--a streamlined model with small front wheels--costs more than $1,800. Davila is using an old chair he bought for $700.

"I need a new chair, but I can't afford one," he said. "My chair is like a tank. The new chairs are much lighter than this."

He seeks out sponsors to pay for his trips to athletic competition.

"When you're an AB (able-bodied) Olympic athlete, you don't have to worry about raising money or taking time and contacting people," Davila said. "I really don't think that's fair. They won't even let us use the word Olympic. In a sense, I have to hustle this money.

"It takes a lot of motivation to do this. To me, I'm as good as any Olympic guy. I may not be as fast, but I'm in as good a shape as them."

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